Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Names. Names are incredibly important, whether we’re talking characters, locations, or even pen names. Let’s focus now, however, on the names we give our characters. I find that if I’m having trouble coming up with characters for my stories, I start with their names. Of course, not all characters’ names will mean something or relate to their personality (how often does that happen in real life?!) but you can definitely have some fun with names. This can be an enjoyable, easy part of planning your novel, but sometimes (when brain fried, for example) you may need a little help. Here are my favourite ways of coming up with character names.
First of all, see if you can give some of your characters names that mean something in relation to who they are, or where they live, or what they do. It doesn’t have to be anything ridiculously obvious (like Samuel Baker, the baker, or Dennis Butcher, the butcher) but you can put subtle hints into your characters’ names that give clues to the reader about what might be coming. This is often easier to do with surnames rather than first names, and it can often depend on what genre you’re writing in, but why not give it a go? If you’re stuck in the planning stage of your novel, creating fun and interesting names for your characters can really help – it’ll allow you to picture your characters more clearly, and as the world of your novel starts to take shape, you’ll want to dive in and get writing as quickly as you can.
There are quite a few fun websites and apps you can use when coming up with character names, and even if you don’t use the actual names they come up with (after all, other writers could be using these apps as well!) they can give you some good ideas. More on this in a bit.
Baby Name Websites
There are hundreds of websites that list names – for several different purposes – and baby names can be a good place to start, as these are often split into girls and boys and are also listed alphabetically. If you have a favourite name or names chosen for your future children, however, I’d steer clear from using them – the last thing you want is for your child to be named after a famous character when your books inevitably become bestsellers (especially if you’ve used their name for the antagonist in your story)! Some sites list popular baby names by the year, which is really useful if you’re writing about a past decade.
Geographical/Historical Name Websites
These are brilliant sources of information if you’re writing about a certain time period, or about another country whose popular names you might not be as familiar with. You can get these listed by first and last names, and often the sites will give you information regarding the origin of a name, so you can really put some thought into the background of your characters, naming them after their personalities (which I think is nice to do even if your readers might not ever realise the reasons for their names).
These sites are good for choosing names, yes, but they’re also quite inspirational. If you’re not sure about any of your characters yet, spend some time browsing through names – something might leap out at you, and you might start getting weird and wonderful ideas. This particularly works for fantasy and historical books, where the names can be bizarrely beautiful – think Lord Of The Rings, for example.
There are several apps that are cheap (or free), fun, and that might give you a little boost when you’re trying to think of names (or, indeed, characters and their traits). ‘Name Dice’ is a random name generator, with the first name appearing on a picture of one die and the last name appearing on the other. It’s very much like picking out random names for your Sims, and while there are some slightly rarer names in there, it’s mainly modern ones (so no ye olde fantasy names). For example, on my first three goes of ‘throwing’ the dice, I got ‘Quinn Parks’, ‘Kira Blake’, and ‘Billy Brady’. I quite like Kira Blake, actually… This is available from the Apple app store and for Android, and it’s absolutely free. As an aside, the same people (Thinkamingo) also have a ‘Story Dice’ app, although this is aimed at perhaps younger people – it works on the same principle, but throws out dice with pictures on the side to get you thinking. For example: an aeroplane, a man on a parachute, and a pair of scissors. Like I said, it seems like it’s for kids, but when you’re stuck in the land of the dreaded creative block, sometimes it’s the simplest things that will help get you out of it! This one you do have to pay for, however, and at the time of writing it costs £1.49. You can also get a ‘Creative Writing Bundle’ from Thinkamingo for £5.99 that includes Story Dice, Story Park, Lists for Writers, and Spooky Story Dice (the latter definitely looks as if it’s meant for kids, but again, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it too!)
In my own books, names can mean different things, whether they’re of people or places. My main character, for example, is called Beth Powers, a not-so-subtle hint that Beth might well start gaining powers of her own in the future. Most of the rest of the names used in the Little Forest series were chosen in order to give an overall feeling of small village, country living. We have Max Rivers, Daniel Fields, and Rick Wood to evoke images of the countryside, not to mention Mrs Teasdale and Reverend Kipling, my homage to tea and cake – something that is quintessentially British. I also did a similar thing with place names. The stately home that holds the eerie, ‘chilling’ Halloween celebrations is called Chillingsley Hall, while the town of Willowton yet again invokes images of trees and forests. The village of Renfield is a slight homage to the ‘crazy’ character in Dracula, as sanity and insanity are big themes in the series, and then we have the county of Covershire, so named because of the images of covertness and maybe even covens it evokes – hinting at the magical elements of the series.
Start thinking about the themes and ideas you’re exploring in your novel or story. Can you reflect any of these notions in the names of your characters or places? This can be a fun exercise, but make sure you don’t get caught up in it too much! Some characters with normal-sounding names will help ground your book in reality – if that’s what you want, of course. Place names can be fun as well, and in general I find the idea of worldbuilding to be one of the best things about writing a novel.
Do you have favourite names from existing books – either characters or locations? Let me know!